Alan Turing: War-Hero, Genius Pardoned for Crime of Homosexuality

Alan Turing is remembered for many things. He was a brilliant cryptographer, a genius logician/philosopher, and the father of the modern computer. He was also gay, and in 1952 Turing was convicted in Great Britain for the criminal offense of being a homosexual. Sixty years after his death, this magnificent man was finally pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II.

One of Turing’s great achievements was the development of a machine that unscrambled the German’s Enigma code used by U-Boats in World War II.  Said British Prime Minster David Cameron, “His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the ‘father of modern computing.’ “

But Turing’s great work went beyond code-breaking. In Artificial Intelligence circles, he is known for his Turing Test, a test designed to determine whether a machine can mimic the behavior of a human. The test involves an interrogator and two “subjects,” all of whom are separated from one another. The interrogator asks questions of each subject, the answers are written down, and the interrogator tries to determine which one is a machine and which one is human. He is also highly esteemed for his work on the [Gödel’s] incompleteness theorem.

Turing spent his undergraduate years at King’s College, Cambridge and earned his Ph.D from Princeton, studying under Alonzo Church. Turing began full-time work at Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park after Britain declared war on September 3, 1939.

When Turing returned to Cambridge, he became more outspoken about his homosexuality. He was arrested and brought to trial on March 31, 1952 when the police learned of a relationship he was having with another man.  To avoid prison time, Turing agreed to chemical castration. He also lost his security clearance and his job as a result of his conviction.

Two-years later, in 1954, Turing committed suicide. (He died from cyanide poisoning.) He was 41.

A well-publicized e-campaign/petition titled “Grant a pardon to Alan Turing” received over 37,000 signatures and was supported by Scientist Stephen Hawking.

The pardon was announced by British justice secretary Chris Grayling who had made the request to the Queen. Mr. Grayling said in a statement Turing “deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science.”